Seeding Infinite Games with Eternal

Eternal’s Reggie James and Zora’s Dee Goens and Jacob Horne chat semiotic technology.

Text Zine
Published 24 Feb 2023

Eternal has always been a social platform of sorts—one that emerged around the thesis of mutual identity. Since its humble beginnings in 2018, it has equally been called a tech company, an avatar social network, a mobile app, and a space for creatives to “just hang out.” As a distributed collective, Eternal is enigmatic by design: this enables it to operate across broad cultural landscapes, with outcomes that are both material and conceptual—driven by different communities and subcultures. Around four years ago, Eternal’s cofounders, Reggie James and Luca Repola, had already begun experimenting with early avatar environments. They were projecting their own parallel virtual characters into extended 3D landscapes. They collapsed gaming spaces with social ones, and populated them with cute pastel avatars and aesthetics that mirrored video games like Animal Crossing or Roblox.

Reggie met Luca in Los Angeles through a mutual friend, and they quickly connected over their shared philosophies during an extended visit. Their long-distance friendship led to longer exchanges of theorycrafting and worldbuilding, bridging distances from their respective backgrounds in the tech and creative industries. The two were fascinated with protoconcepts of the metaverse long before its cultural explosion. In those days, they had little traction pitching the idea of a mobile metaverse to VCs. But they were deeply invested in making objects that could go beyond the constraints of physical production—churning out digital designs and fun content for Gen Z to discover in real time. Their motivations were always rooted in creating experimental, wholly new social spaces where youth culture could come together and meaningfully interact with one another. Several iterations (and years) later, the avatar-based social network they had originally envisioned has morphed as its founding principles have been applied to different products, spaces, and mediums.

Throughout various waves of pandemic life, Eternal fostered a microcommunity. They had an ecosystem of friends and acquaintances who were hosting parties and dialogues, and they would occasionally reach out to see how Eternal could support them, and their projects. Responding to the difficult predicaments that many artists and musicians find themselves in (often stifled by platform lock-in, and exploited by massive distribution companies like Ticketmaster), Reggie and Luca launched a mobile ticketing app in service of their friend’s festivals, like A Fucking Weekend, or Club Eternal. They captured the sentimental nature of saving a concert ticket stub in a box full of keepsakes by designing interpretive 3D “ticket objects” in the form of teacups, or speakers, instead of defaulting to digital representations of tear-away vouchers. The objects could be saved to your profile, where they would come to represent shared relics of your online identity as a function of participating in the scene.

Beyond programming its ticketing app, Eternal continues to spin out in multiple directions—each one focused on developing platforms for artists through technology. Their network of operations now includes a ground floor space in the Lower East Side, merchandise, and media franchises both in print and online. Enzo (The Magazine), powered by Eternal and run by editor-in-chief Alex Sodova, will soon begin production on its eighth issue. And their guerrilla talk show, Exit Sign has garnered a dedicated following on TikTok and Instagram. Both stem from the team’s curiosity for exploring the world through a different lens. The Exit Sign camera crew usually takes to the streets, where its hosts casually ask strangers about their dreams, college experiences, or alien sightings. The gritty, lofi camera and editing reveals meandering, earnest responses, in part because the hosts purposely ask questions with no presuppositions about what the answers should be.

Photo: Kevin Lombardo

As their media presence expanded, Eternal also opened the doors to their studio and office space in New York, so they could share their creative process with their surrounding community. Prioritizing the tangible connections that often get lost when collaborating remotely, or through devices, they made a deliberate choice to make their workplace an open space, where someone might wander into thinking it’s a gallery, or a store. Dispatches from Eternal’s corner of the universe have now been broadcast and shared widely across the internet. Their team wants to empower even more artists to explore different thought patterns, or at the very least, avoid getting entrenched in institutions that haven’t adapted to new models and technologies.

Traipsing through the various social media networks at our disposal, through products that were supposed to provide us with a new sense of home, authenticity, or connection, we have instead found ourselves caught in the algorithm’s predictive loop. We accept so many new technologies because they are convenient and easy to use, or because they were ostensibly designed to free us from our obligations and bring us closer to each other. The platforms that we use are containers—often with little structure, or narrative, beyond what we bring to them. What Eternal offers is an opportunity to break from the container. They are a group of individuals pushing the boundaries of their own circumscribed digital landscape, and they are grounded in real communities with shared, lived experiences. Eternal optimizes for positive group dynamics, socializing, worlding, glitching, forking new paths, and hanging out. Whatever their approach to developing new tools may be, their outcomes are sure to challenge our concept of culture, aesthetics, and their relationship to one another. They are always considering our spatial relationships (both online and off) and, ultimately, asking questions about how identity can form around a shared sense of narrative.

In this conversation between Zora cofounders Dee Goens and Jacob Horne and Eternal cofounder Reggie James, the three discuss PFPs, memes, spectrums of identity, and Eternal’s philosophy for providing better infrastructures for artists.—Eileen Isagon Skyers

Dee Goens: What is Eternal? Is it crypto? Is it adjacent?

Jacob Horne: Is Eternal a DAO?

Reggie James: Eternal is, first and foremost, a culture. I talk a lot about an ecosystem, an all-at-once type of environment. We build software. We have core apps. We have a really incredible audience. We have a distinct media and brand practice and multiple shows online. We’re a company. This space is our office, but it also doubles as a creative community center. It’s about being ground-level. Something that we share is a fear of tech becoming this new ivory tower. How do we reemerge those tools from street level up?

DG: It changed the neighborhood.

RJ: The whole neighborhood changed. Luca [Repola, cofounder of Eternal] and I were like, “Let’s really think about what our values are. Let’s think about who we want to be around.” That inspired this groundfloor Lower East Side space. My mom grew up around the corner. She went to elementary school down the street. It was a full spiritual circle in a lot of ways. It really just speaks true to our values. We’re a company, we have investors, we’ve got to make a return, but what other tech company can you just walk into? It’s a culture, and a culture that can be felt and referenced and watched and attended. In short, Eternal powers artists. We power creatives and we are filling in gaps that older institutions haven’t filled in due to entropy. It’s building institutions in weird ways. But I hate the word institution.

DG: It does feel archaic. It feels patriarchal.

JH: Did you know you were going to do this from day one? Or was this something that became more clear as you started to play around with different products, form factors, and ideas?

RJ: Anyone following Eternal from the beginning is probably super confused. Eternal started as an identity company. Lil Miquela was starting to happen, which is a CGI avatar but in this kayfabe-like environment, and Luca had started Eternal with straight-up avatars projected into real space. They were extensions of his own story. He dropped out of the New School. The character had dropped out of the New School. It was this mirroring effect. We were introduced by my friend Cami [Téllez] who’s the founder of Parade. I flew to LA, slept on his couch, and we just got really philosophically deep like, “Who are you? What are your passions?”

We had multiple failed fundraising attempts in spring 2019—pitching the metaverse as this new thing and investors laughing us out of the room. We had a negative bank account balance, which we now have on a shirt as a screenshot.

That led us to the middle ground of a Roblox or Animal Crossing-style thing, but it’s primarily social. This is all before my crypto illumination point. Friends in 2016 told me to buy ETH and I didn’t. Could have retired. I will just buy things that my smart friends tell me to buy now because odds are, they’re right. That’s my thesis on life. Me and my friends are right. You just need to go off.

We essentially built six or seven versions of this avatar-based social world. Then we hit this point where we were encouraged not to limit ourselves based on the original thesis. Little ounces of encouragement really broke down our fear wall. Eternal essentially started over in March. That’s when we leaned into our entire aesthetic. We power artists. We power creatives. That’s the mission. Eternal is a little hard to decipher.

Photo: Kevin Lombardo

DG: We can empathize with Zora. It feels like we have had a similar journey.

JH: There was a shift around the same time, probably February or March this year, where we had to take the self-constraint off and be like: here’s the boilerplate of what a venture-funded tech company should look like. At the same time, enough VCs were starting to discover what brands actually are in practice and how they can be applied to different mediums. Thinking about Eternal through the lens of just one product, experiment, or piece of media misses the bigger picture. People from the tech world, the crypto world, and venture capital don’t necessarily have that language. LVMH isn’t a model they’ve considered. Eternal putting the swirl symbol on something is instantly going to make that thing more valuable, and that has a lot of implications.

RJ: Everything up to this point has essentially been: widget exists, we pour all of our engineering resources into widget, widget scales. There is no complex theory. This might be crypto’s general issue. We have one app. One token. All engineering resources go into that thing, and then it doesn’t go anywhere in this magical land of interoperability because there is nothing stitching it to anything else. I don’t want to oversimplify, but the era of scale big blue app is done. It’s done partially because we built infrastructure that allows us to innovate on an organizational model level. That’s why DAOs are interesting, because it’s innovation on an organizational level, not necessarily on a production level. And that’s okay. That’s good. Something that our group chat with our friend Eugene [Angelo] talks about a lot is that crypto is a legal innovation more than it is some technical efficiency.

JH: I feel like we’re talking about symbols too. Eugene coined the term “symbolic real estate.” With the current system, it’s a very lossy exercise. A lot of good brands can intuit that creating these moments and contexts around symbols creates a lot of value, but doesn’t always come back. It’s a very lossy exercise in the prior system. That’s where the DAO comes in—little windows that show us that maybe it can be a bit more explicit.

DG: It feels like now companies can do it like creative directors at fashion companies are doing it. Like Virgil—you can go from architecture, to fashion, to music, and so can your company. You don’t have to be held at cost for it.

RJ: Just on the color piece, Heron Preston. He has orange. That is the memetic train just going. Virgil owned quotes…

DG: Eternal owns swirls.

JH: What’s the story of the swirl? How’d the symbol come about?

RJ: It’s confidential. But before the swirl, we were building this game that was dubbed Baroque Terminal. I was reaching really far back into the past. People are getting obsessed with this gothic dark imagery. When we were doing new branding we thought let’s get back to some roots. Let’s look back at graffiti and let’s look at Marc Echo. We were working with a type designer. When he sent back the word “Eternal,” he made the E like that—the swirl.

DG: I feel like the chains are some of the most desirable things.

RJ: Yeah, the V2s are sitting over there. Big shout out to Luca. We have this back-and-forth mentality where he’ll do a side mission very naturally and then I’ll pull the trigger on it.

JH: With Zora, we did a three-day live stream with around 60 or 70 people all in a shared Figma file. Ben Pierratt put the Zorb in the O, and then immediately there were 50 different versions. It was so remixable.

It is interesting when a symbol like that emerges and you then start to play with it in different contexts. I can see why fashion has done this for so long. It’s part of the practice.

DG: Customizing it is kind of like dressing your Zorb. Choosing your fit, in a way. Giving a personality to it.

JH: You mentioned the word symbol. It’s a heavy word that Eugene has kind of pushed with “symbolic real estate.” Do you want to talk about that a little bit? It’s a really cool concept to explore.

RJ: What’s interesting is the explosion we saw in the 10k PFP. I wrote this essay a while ago called “Cybernetic Drives Towards Referential Objects.” I’m going to use Christianity because it’s the easiest thing. Jesus died on the cross for your sins. You are a sinner. You sin constantly. You repent constantly. It’s a loop. That is what Christianity is in a nutshell. You need to be saved. This object [the cross] saves you.

The idea of the swirl works in a similar way. You are an artist or you’re someone that enjoys being an audience member. The swirl powers artists. And because you need to live a fulfilled life and produce or consume artistic work, you go to the swirl. Done. The Zorb has a similar effect. I think that is, to an extent, what identity is. When you have an inventory of referential objects, that becomes your identity. Kei Kreutler wrote this incredible piece about inventories not identities. And I think she really understands that act of the accumulation of those referential objects.

The 10k PFPs existed on a spectrum of identity, mixability, and substitution. In short: this thing represents a piece of what I feel. I co-opt that because maybe there’s some value to this community. That’s why free to mint, or free to own to use the emerging term, is so important. It’s so fast and swappable.

DG: It feels like the Ethereum logo or the Bitcoin B is the closest we’ve gotten in crypto. Maybe the unicorn at Uniswap, or the Noggles at Nouns.

RJ: What Nouns does well is that the glasses have a bank account. The entire point of that project is to put out any sort of project that the community agrees with. I want to do a decentralized project, that is my purpose, there’s the glasses symbol, there’s a bank account, the end. Whether or not it is tasteful is beyond the point…

DG: It’s the meme.

RJ: It’s the meme that projects the purpose, and you can align with that meme and fulfill that purpose. No 10K PFP project has done that once. There is no central meme that has a purpose other than I align with this art. I align with this identity symbol. And that is the really big shift that needs to happen.

JH: That was an exercise I went through, going through different brands in the crypto space to try and figure out, would this work? Why wouldn’t it? I started getting back to that core idea of whether this really was a symbol or not. And what is a symbol relating itself too?

Photo: Kevin Lombardo

RJ: If your symbol is tied to some arbitrage game within someone else’s arbitrage game which is front-running someone else’s arbitrage game, who cares?

JH: That feels like DeFi summer.

RJ: Now, it’s full grief. That’s not to make fun of people’s pain, because there’s a real person back there who’s experiencing a real financial problem, but we also need to be able to critique what it is that got constructed and pulled these people into, for lack of a better word, a game.

JH: Something that’s always been fascinating for me about Eternal is that it feels so native to a lot of the ideas that I project onto crypto, which aren’t common. You’ve been observing and playing around with it for a while. Would it ever make sense for Eternal to move into this medium a little more? What aspects of crypto are you playing around with? A lot of Eternal’s success and the symbol itself is your direct creative direction, and the public nature of crypto can be at odds with that autonomy. How do you think about all those different dimensions?

RJ: There are two or three gating factors, so to speak. Philosophically, there’s a lot of overlap. I do believe in stronger handshakes for artists, talking to artists on a very regular basis about where they are with their record label, where they are with booking a tour. We have to have a strong opinion on where the power should be. These are all questions of power. It’s all about—to use the term we don’t want to use—the way that the institutions break down. Someone’s at the decision end of that or the effect end of that. Effects have been built against artists succeeding and having autonomy. From a philosophical standpoint of where crypto sits, where Zora sits, we have a lot of shared values on artist autonomy and the ability to produce work free of a lot of current constraints.

How do we build a new product, a new experience? That’s the entire ethos of Eternal. When we get to crypto, if we get to crypto, there are a lot of narrative things that need to happen. It’ll be in service of artists having better infrastructure for themselves, that we can help provide them with.

The experiences and artists will have power because we’re building our tools in a way that is philosophically aligned with them having a lot of influence and power. The number one thing we’re not going to do is screw an artist, or force something on our audience that they don’t want to use. You want a certain audience but that audience doesn’t want your tool. Full stop. That’s a really hard reality. On the symbolic real estate question, there’s a way to build onchain mechanisms that don’t necessarily give up control of symbolic real estate all at once. No one has thought about that because it is essentially not part of the zeitgeist of dialogue around CCO.

JH: The nuance that gets lost in the CCO zeitgeist right now is that because of the nature of NFTs, it’s possible to tell what’s canon versus what isn’t. Most people could probably tell that the Louis Vuitton bag on Canal Street is not the real Louis Vuitton bag. By the nature of NFTs, you can see who minted it and where it came from, which I think is an important variable. But it is also true that you could have someone on the internet decide to proliferate your symbol in a way that you do not want at all. People might not understand the difference between what is canon and what isn’t.

RJ: CCO should be something that you aspire to. It’s not necessarily a day-one thing. Next year we will make the CCO. And then you do a whole other run of really dope shit so there’s already some canon set by the original team. That would be a far more compelling vision of how to approach CCO. But instead, everything is on the internet, someone front runs with a tweet that got retweeted, they enjoy their 15 minutes, and then a host of bad copypasta projects get launched. It’s grief. That’s the theme of this chat: Grief. I’m not a pessimist by the way. I’m trying to give a playbook for what the next project can be.

JH: Let’s replay that quickly. The playbook is to use CCO, but take a one-to-three-year window to build the loop, the language, the canon, the feel, and the energy around the symbol that you think is right. Then when it does come to that CCO moment, it’s got a core that’s pretty hard to fuck up.

RJ: Exactly. I have one more pitch.

JH: Bring it on.

DG: Let’s hear it.

RJ: Crypto needs fun. My pitch is an NFT platform based on theft. It has to be a game.

JH: Let’s go.

RJ: You take the same general structure of these museum NFT platforms, but essentially mint three types of characters. You can either be an artist, a guard, or a thief. People upload collections or pieces to the museum—that is the minting platform. There’s already a mass crowd that’s playing this game for fun. The supply side is the artist putting out ideas and objects. Then, anything you steal, you keep. But also anything you protect, you keep. Or it can stay in the museum.

DG: It’s making the Mona Lisa meme as a playbook. Famous because it was stolen. Are there enough thieves? Are there enough people protecting? Enough artists?

RJ: What does it say when everyone mints a thief? It says a lot about you in this space.

JH: I’ll be the guard.

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